The Forum | Costs

Throwing Money at an Accountability Problem

January 13, 2015

Last Friday, President Obama announced a proposal for a new federal subsidy for community college students. Named “America’s College Promise,” the program would provide funding for two years of attendance at a community college for students that “attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program[.]” The criteria for what will be considered “steady progress” have not yet been defined. 

Arriving shortly after another major higher ed announcement—a proposed framework for a federal college rating system—this announcement continues the trend of ambitious goals and a significant lack of detail. With the proposed Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), there has been much discussion about which metrics to include, given that some seem likely to increase accountability, while others will simply repeat the errors of the accreditation system in measuring everything but actual learning outcomes.

In the case of “America’s College Promise,” graduation rates appear—so far—to be the only explicit metric against which community colleges will be held accountable. Given the community college history of dismal completion rates, this is not a bad idea, but it is a very incomplete idea. Completing college degrees is important, but “America’s College Promise” provides no assurance that those degrees will be a meaningful certification of academic achievement. 

A large infusion of money does not bring accountability. This is especially true for cost-control. We have seen already how, in the current system, even very badly performing institutions are subsidized through their receipt of federal student loans. We’ve outlined before, how this loan system has bid up the price of tuition.

Directing this subsidy towards community colleges alone will also discourage institutional diversity, which has been a great strength of American higher ed. The less-diverse world of K-12 public education gives us some taste of the changes to expect from a more uniform approach. Subsidy to existing and established institutions is also a disincentive to try something new. Though the subsidy lowers the cost of operation for existing schools, it increases the burden to new entrants who will have to establish themselves at a disadvantage before they are approved for federal funding.

The accreditation system’s control of federal loans and has already been a major roadblock to realizing the disruptive changes the higher ed system badly needs. And, as Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education points out: “By focusing this on just community college students, are we going to lose out on some students that could benefit by going and starting at a four-year university?”

Indeed, incentives matter, and two years of free tuition is going to have a huge impact on students’ decision-making processes. One of the few details we did get, that this will not be a “last dollar” plan like the Tennessee Promise program it is based on, has the potential to wreak even greater havoc with student incentives. It means that some students will be eligible for both Pell Grants and free tuition.

With the cost of college and living expenses thereby paid—and just consider that the combination of these two programs essentially pays students to go to school—students who may have no interest in actually completing a degree, and who may be better served at other institutions or by not attending college until they are academically ready, will be encouraged to enter these open-admissions institutions. Massive amounts of resources will be spent on them and—given the low completion rates at community colleges—they will likely have nothing to show for it. Even if they do, we know well enough from such studies as Aspiring Adults Adrift, that President Obama’s assertion that a college degree “ensures you’re always employable” is just plain wrong. Without quality standards, “America’s College Promise,” will be for many students a ticket to nowhere. 


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